- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Neither Josef Boumedienne, Steve Eminger, John Gruden nor Nolan Yonkman has played even 18 games for the Washington Capitals. However, each is a viable candidate — along with holdovers Joel Kwiatkowski, Rick Berry and J.F. Fortin — for the four job openings on the blue line.

Only longtime stalwarts Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt and 2003 regular Jason Doig are sure to be among the Caps’ seven defensemen when the season opens on Oct.9.

“We’ve got a month to watch people play and find the combinations that work,” Caps general manager George McPhee said. “I don’t want to put a kid in over his head, but other than that age really isn’t an issue.”

Gruden, 33, hopes that’s true. After playing in 59 games over parts of three seasons for Boston in the mid-1990s, the 6-foot, 203-pound Minnesotan fell out of favor in 1996 and spent the year in the minors. Gruden played for the independent Detroit Vipers the next season before signing with Ottawa. He played in 22 games, the last in 1999-2000, before two shoulder surgeries set him back.

Gruden spurned offers from Ottawa and Washington to be a depth defenseman last year, opting to play in Germany. He also skated for the United States in the world championships. When the Caps called again, he agreed to give the NHL another shot.

“At my age, I’m fortunate to be in a situation where there are spots to be won,” said Gruden, the AHL defenseman of the year for Caps coach Bruce Cassidy with Ottawa’s Grand Rapids farm team in 2001-2002. “Butch got my foot in the door here. I have to do the rest.”

Cassidy praised Gruden’s work ethic, skating and smarts and said he would be a terrific mentor to prospects with the AHL team in Portland, Maine, if he doesn’t make the Caps.

Despite their obvious skills, Eminger, 19, and Yonkman, 22, could well be Pirates, not Caps.

“Emmer is doing the same things he did in camp last year, but the expectations are higher because of what he accomplished last year,” Cassidy said. “Emmer played here [for 17 games during the first two months of 2002-2003] and in the World Juniors for a reason. He’s going to be an NHL player. It’s just a question of when. We have to decide if it’s better for him to play a lot in Portland every night or maybe not to play that much here.”

The 6-2, 200-pound Eminger is a fine skater though still a little raw in his own end.

“People talk about young players making a team four or five years down the road, but my goal is to make the team now,” said the Toronto native.

While Eminger’s development accelerated last year, Yonkman’s virtually ceased. Three serious injuries limited him to 24 games in Portland after he finished his first year as a pro with 11 games with the Caps in the second half of 2001-2002.

“Last year was frustrating, but it’s a fresh start now,” said Yonkman, who’s from Punnichy, Saskatchewan. “If you’re going to come down on me, you’re going to pay a price.”

That’s because at 6-6 and 236 pounds, Yonkman is the biggest Cap.

“Sometimes Nolan gets excited and overplays the puck instead of making the simple play,” Cassidy said. “Last year was almost like a lost year for him. We all want the Yonkmans to be here because they’re homegrown, but if they’re not ready, they’re not ready.”

The Caps believe Boumedienne, 25, finally might be ready. After two seasons in his native Sweden and two more in Finland, Boumedienne crossed the Atlantic for New Jersey’s 2000 camp. He got into just four NHL games with the Devils and Tampa Bay before being traded to Ottawa last June.

As Gruden discovered, the Senators were deep on the blue line and Boumedienne was dealt to the Caps on Dec.16. He scored 30 points in 44 games for Portland before being called up on March25. He beat Montreal in overtime that night in the first of his six games with Washington and teamed mostly with three-time All-Star Gonchar.

“It’s defense first,” said the 6-foot, 200-pound Bomedienne. “The offense is a bonus. I try to play a simple game, move the puck and use proper positioning. You don’t have to be the strongest guy in the gym as long as you have balance and strength on your skates.”

Cassidy sees a lot of Calle Johannson in Boumedienne and hopes he shows enough strength in preseason to earn a permanent spot alongside Gonchar.

“Josef is like Calle with the way he surveys the ice and makes that first pass,” Cassidy said. “And he can jump into the play. He played well with Gonch last year because they both move the puck so well. We just don’t know yet how Josef will do in his own end. That’s part of the growing pains of playing inexperienced guys.”

Notes — Forward Garret Stroshein and Roman Tvrdon and defensemen Matt Libby and Dwayne Zinger were sent to Portland and left wing Jevon Desautels was assigned to Spokane of the Western Hockey League in the first cuts of camp. The moves left the Caps with 46 players: 27 forwards, 13 defensemen and six goalies.

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